Perhaps you have seen the new 199 foot white cross that has been erected on the campus of First Baptist Church of Central Florida adjacent to the 408 expressway in Ocoee. It's impossible to miss. An article accompanied by a picture in The Orlando Sentinel this week said that the cross does not conceal a cell phone tower, as many have assumed. It is what it appears to be: a symbol for a congregation of Christian believers.
Seeing the cross reminded me of a design that was originally proposed by our church architects when we received the master plan for this campus. There is a model of that plan in the narthex, and if you stop to look at it, you will see that the circle drive drop-off area has a very similar simple white cross reaching higher than our surrounding buildings. In 1996, when the Fellowship Center C Building was being constructed we also received a gift for the cross. However, the Trustees and members of the Building Committee didn't think the design said enough about who we are as a faith community, so they asked for several gifted individuals to suggest more appropriate designs. It was Mark Wollard, a long-time member of St. Luke's, and at that time our Director of Creative Communications who submitted the design for the cross we now have. Our scripture lesson today was his inspiration. "I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit..." (John 15:5)
Our cross is less of a marker about where we are than it is a reminder about who we are and who we are called to be. As we walk onto the campus we are reminded that we are a community of believers entwined together in our love for each other and our love for Christ. As we leave the campus, we are reminded that we are to bear the fruit that comes from an active self-giving love for the world. I can understand wanting to build a cross that reaches to the clouds, but I am glad we have a cross that in a way, reaches down to us with its message of community and fruit.
Our core value of Christ-centered Community states, "We claim a sacred place where Christ's love unites all to support and care for others while nurturing a personal relationship with God." One of the distinctive aspects of the earliest Christians was their commitment to community. The Greek word is koinonia, and it implies a connectedness, a common unity of interests and purpose. Believers were united by the grace of Jesus Christ, his unifying love for all of them, but they never were content to keep that gift for themselves alone. It was a gift that was meant for the whole world. That purposeful mission: to love others as they had experienced God's love for them did not come without significant issues of community that were challenged by diversity. Those issues had to do with how they worshipped, how they made decisions, how they dealt with money, how they cared for others, and ultimately, how they understood the life that Jesus described for them as eternal. Those issues remain for us today. And our St. Luke's style of living holistically and compassionately into community is one of our great strengths.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, lifted up a thoughtful approach to community building when he quoted a Lutheran theologian named Peter Meiderlin, who lived fifty years before John was born in England. In making an appeal to a toleration of diversity of theological opinion, John Wesley said, "Though we may not think alike, may we not all love alike?" Meiderlin's phrase "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity" has become identified with how we as Methodist Christians live with each other and present ourselves and Christ to the world.
In essentials, unity. As far as I can tell, when Jesus was asked to sum up the essentials around which we should gather as believers, he said: "Love the Lord your God will all of your heart, and soul, and mind, and strength, And love your neighbor as yourself. On this turns all of the law and the prophets. ...There is no greater commandment than these." (Mark 12:30-31)
In non-essentials, liberty. This means that those things which do not affect the heart of our understanding of the mission of love for God and for others in Jesus Christ should and ought to be not just tolerated, but welcomed as indications of the broadness of God's mercy and the amazing reach of the gospel into our lives.
In all things, charity. The word "charity" in the 18th century when John Wesley lived, meant "love." In all things, love.
The key to Christ-centered community is love, a love that is entwined in Jesus. But the hallmark of a true nurturing community is its ability to embrace the differences that reflect the whole body of Christ and the givenness of a global perspective of mission.
Today I want us to consider five components of community that I think are important to the life we share here at St. Luke's as branches of the true vine of love. Because we make the Christ the center of our life together:
We can worship and not worry.
I was at a clergy meeting in southwest Florida this week, and one of the pastors there stood up and asked for case studies as a part of his doctoral thesis. He said he needed three or four stories about "worship wars." Everyone laughed. The movement in the last couple of decades to contemporary worship services in our United Methodist churches has often times (perhaps even most times) been fraught with disagreement and division. For some reason, some people think we all ought to worship the same way, even though we don't all dress the same way, order the same things in a restaurant, or drive the same cars.
I remember when we first previewed our contemporary style service here in the sanctuary one Sunday about ten years ago. A few folks walked in at 11:00, saw the drums and immediately turned around and left. I chased some of them out onto the patio and asked them to stay and they told me that their church had denied them the opportunity to worship that day.
The prayers, the scripture, the sermon, the offering, the benediction were all going to be the same. It was only the style of music that was going to be different—ONLY THAT ONE SUNDAY before the contemporary service was going to be starting the following week in the gym. I had to tell them that the St. Luker's who preferred a different style of music and service could also feel that their church denied them the opportunity to worship as they preferred every week.
Now contemporary worship is an important component of our community life, and more than a third of our worshippers on any given week choose that style. Several times a year our worship services bring all of us together and we celebrate both traditional and contemporary ways of expressing our faith. Because we are centered in Christ, we can worship differently and not worry about it.
Just a footnote here. As we have said on other occasions, John Wesley, a very traditional Anglican priest, along with his brother Charles, was actually on the cutting edge of what would have been "contemporary worship in his own time. They took worship out of the church and into the open air—quite a scandal in itself—and encouraged the people to sing hymns to tunes they already knew, often times from the pubs!
The only thing that bugs me about having several worship options on a Sunday is that I can't spot who is playing hooky as easily. I will say to someone, "I missed you in worship on Sunday," and they will reply, "Oh, we went to contemporary." Or, "We were at HopeSpring." I have no way of knowing if they are playing fast and loose with the ninth commandment or not, but anyway, I don't worry!
We can disagree and not demonize.
This is one of the great gifts of our Methodist heritage: to have unity in the essentials and liberty in the non-essentials. The St. Luke's family, counting children, youth and adults embraces more than 8000 individuals. That is 100 times larger than my first church, and even with only eighty members in Haddock, Georgia, we couldn't agree on everything. We certainly don't all agree here, and this is not a congregation—thanks to email—that is reticent to let us preachers know it. But the thing that I appreciate the most is that we do not demonize one another because of our differences.
The approach I always take to criticism or disagreement is that I am not about to let one decision, or one sentence in a sermon, or one mistake on my part to determine my ongoing relationship with one of you. Jesus did not allow that, and the early church did not allow it.
There was a very important disagreement in the first century church that arose once Paul had begun his mission work to non-Jews. The issue was whether or not in order to become a Christian persons had to first become Jews. For adult men, that would have necessitated circumscision...without anesthesia...with a flint knife. Not exactly a welcoming evangelistic approach.
The original disciples in Jerusalem, led by Peter, said "Yes." Paul said, "No way." They could have beat each other up about it, but they found a solution without implying that one or the other of them was less than faithful or any less a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ. All too often today, segments of the Christian family hurl accusations at each other regarding things that Wesley believed were non-essentials.
Two events in the coming months will give evidence to how well we can disagree and not demonize. The United Methodist General Conference will begin meeting for 10 days this coming week in Fort Worth Texas. The world-wide body meets once every four years. Both Lynette Fields and I have been delegates from Florida several times, but this time we stepped aside to allow others to participate. There will be debates and decisions about homosexuality, church membership, and denominational stances and opinions on many social issues. The decisions reached will reflect a majority vote of the nearly 1000 delegates. They will disagree with each other on virtually everything, but they will embrace each other as sisters and brothers in the Lord.
This fall, with the prospect yet again of a hotly contested and potentially divisive presidential election, there is again the danger within the Christian community to judge someone's faithfulness or commitment to Christ based on the candidates they support. Did you know that you can actually be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ and vote Democratic, or Republican, or Libertarian, or even Independent? Anticipating the fall, we have already asked about twenty lay persons here at St. Luke's (persons of varying ages, ethnicities, genders, and political affiliations) to help us define and discuss the major issues we will face. Their reflections and suggestions will guide a four week sermon series we will have before the election. Christ-centered community makes it possible for us to disagree and still live together in love.
We can give and not grumble.
Living in community has implications for stewardship. If there is any place where we need some divine help that comes from a centeredness in Jesus, it is with our giving. Now when it comes to paying taxes, it is admittedly hard to give and not grumble, but all too often we carry that attitude into our support for Kingdom work in Christ. If you read the 4th chapter of the book of Acts you will find that the first believers tried an amazing experiment in community stewardship. We are told that "no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. ...it was distributed to each as any had need." (Acts 4:32,35) Apparently they were able to give and not grumble...at least for a while. However in the very next chapter, a husband and wife named of Annanias and Sapphira must have done some behind-the-door grumbling about that stewardship idea. They held back their giving, lied about it to the apostles, and were sent packing—to their heavenly home, that is. And so ended the grumbling.
In the context of our Christ-centeredness here at St. Luke's we always try to emphasize giving not as an obligation, but as an opportunity: an opportunity to be a part of God's amazing, transformative work in the world. The transformations that take place occur in two locations: in the life of the one who receives, and in the life of the one who gives.
I'll bet the thing you enjoy most on Christmas morning is not opening a gift given to you, but watching someone open a gift you have given to them. There is a funny thing about the things we receive or give to ourselves: they seem to quickly lose their value as possessions. But the act of giving to others only seems to increase in meaning as time goes by.
Living in community in Christ with each other, and seeing the world as the larger community of all of God's children makes it possible for me to give and not grumble at all. Perhaps it is the same for you.
We can be fruitful and not forgetful.
One of the great values of community in Christ is that there is always someone in the faith family who will remind us of the needs of the world. Some will be passionate about students away at college, some will be passionate about supporting the troops. Some will be passionate about homelessness. Some about genocide. Some will be passionate about kids in Orlando who have no school supplies. Some will be passionate about kids in Haiti who have no food. Our ministries here at St. Luke's are born from compassionate concern about loving God and loving our neighbor. We are fruitful in our serving of Christ because the community in him will not allow us to be forgetful.
We can live and not languish.
One of the most wonderful gifts of Christ-centered community is that is helps us to live, not just languish in existing. This week we lost one of the most remarkable teachers I have ever known. Her name was Susie Blackmun. She was a member of St. Luke's, and she taught me more about living by he way she embraced dying than anyone else ever has. Susie was a born rebel, a flower-child of the sixties. Her father was United States Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, who before his death often visited here at St. Luke's with his wife Dottie. They were both life-long committed United Methodists.
Susie once travelled around the world as a crew person on a yacht, eventually meeting William Brown, whom she married. Susie and William shared the same anniversary with Kim and me, and over the years we celebrated June 30 together many times. Susie was an amazing person in many ways. We will remember her life here this coming Friday, but the most amazing thing she did was embrace the gift she believed her life was all the way to the end. A few years ago she was diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease, for which there is no cure. ALS attacks the nerve cells controlling the voluntary muscles in the body. Over the course of the illness, all muscle control eventually ceases and death comes as a result of the cessation of the muscles of the diaphram controlling respiration. The last time Kim and I saw Susie she was unable to move anything but one muscle in her neck. Yet her mind, her spirit, and her wonderful sense of humor were still very strong...as strong as ever.
When Susie realized she had ALS, she embraced the end of her life with the same zeal she had embraced every other part of it. She went around the country having what she called "living wakes," reuniting with friends, celebrating her life with them, and helping all of them comes to positive terms with the inevitability of her death, and her transition to a new life.
She never once languished in her illness and never complained about seeing her life come to an all-too abrupt end at 58. All of us who knew her received the gift of her amazing peace, positive hope, and unrelenting compassion—a compassion that included squirrels, possums, plants, and people.
In all these ways, and surely in many more, Christ-centered community entwines us in love. And that is why we cherish it to our core.